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Anglo-French rivalry peaks as Cameron plugs trade in India

British PM David Cameron arrived in India on Monday for a three-day trip just days after French President François Hollande’s visit ended with boosted Franco-Indian trade ties as the European states compete in a fast-growing economy.


India had barely bid adieu to French President François Hollande - who left town optimistic about a $12-billion contract for French fighter jets - when British Prime Minister David Cameron touched down at Mumbai airport on Monday amid a scandal engulfing an Anglo-Italian helicopter deal.

Kicking off a three-day visit to India with the largest trade delegation taken abroad by a British prime minister, Cameron said the UK could forge one of “the great partnerships of the 21st century” with India.

After more than a century of colonisation, Britain is still seeking markets in India, but this time under very different terms with Europe’s debt-stricken states competing to tap into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The days of the classic Anglo-French colonial competition may be over, but in India these days, it has been reignited in a very different postcolonial guise.

Last week, during his first visit to an Asian nation as president, Hollande’s team reported progress on talks to seal a $12-billion contract for 126 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation. The two sides also concluded long-running talks on a $6-billion pact for short-range surface-to-air missiles, which will be jointly produced by French missile-maker MBDA and Indian weapons developer DRDO.

Serendipity for Hollande, bad timing for Cameron

Hollande’s trip came at what the Indian press called a “serendipitous moment” following the showcasing of Rafale jets during the French-led intervention in Mali last month.

In contrast, the timing of Cameron’s trip is far from ideal.

On Friday, the Indian government said it wanted to cancel a $750 million contract for a dozen helicopters made by AgustaWestland, the Anglo-Italian subsidiary of Italy's Finmeccanica, over bribery allegations.

According to Indian officials, Cameron is likely to face further questions about the contract for the AW101 helicopters, which are being manufactured in southwest Britain.

India launched an investigation into the deal after Italian authorities arrested Finmeccanica's Chief Executive Giuseppe Orsi last week for suspected international corruption and fraud related to the contract.

The Indian government, which is keen to be seen as tough on corruption ahead of the 2014 general elections, has asked Britain for a “fully fledged report” on what London knows about the scandal.

The British government has said it wants to wait until the Italian investigation ends before submitting its full report. But London has provided New Delhi with an interim report on the subject.

Out with the Typhoon, enter the Rafale

Cameron’s latest visit comes more than two years after his first trip to India, when the British prime minister pressed the case for the part-British Eurofighter Typhoon, which was competing for the $12 billion Indian Air Force contract.

But the Typhoon lost out to the Rafale when New Delhi selected the Dassault-made medium multi-role aircraft. The Rafale deal is still not finalized although Hollande’s recent trip is believed to have pushed the negotiations further.

Britain voiced disappointment over the French deal, with Cameron telling parliament last February that he would do everything to persuade New Delhi to opt for the Typhoon.

A year later, British persistence appeared to have considerably dampened. "We respect the fact that the Indians have chosen their preferred bidder and are currently negotiating with the French,” a Downing Street official told the British daily, the Guardian. “Of course, we will continue to promote Eurofighter as a great fast jet, not just in India but around the world."

But the corruption allegations into the AW101helicopter deal is not expected to aid Cameron’s chances of peddling the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Diplomatic delicacy

Instead, British officials were keen to stress the vast potential for economic ties between the two countries in bilateral trade – including urban infrastructure development, finance and the retail sector.

At a meeting with Unilever workers and business leaders in the Indian commercial capital of Mumbai on Monday, Cameron stressed the wide-ranging economic ties between India and Britain. "With me I've got architects, planners and finance experts who can work out the complete solution” to India’s chronic urban infrastructural problems, Cameron told his audience.

On the diplomatic front, Cameron also faces choppy waters. New Delhi is upset over Britain’s recent attempts to broker a deal between neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan at a London summit earlier this year.

During his last visit to India in 2010, Cameron issued an unexpectedly blunt warning to Pakistan about "the export of terror". The remark went down well in New Delhi, but provoked a furious response in Islamabad.

It also helped cool some of the furore sparked a year ago, when then British foreign minister David Miliband linked the 2008 Mumbai attacks to the lack of a political solution in divided Kashmir.

India resents any foreign involvement in the contested Himalayan region, which it sees as a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Islamabad.

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